The Vietnamese women who fought for their country

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Image source, Lee Karen Stow
Image caption,
A picture of a female fighter is shown amidst a display of wreckage from the Vietnam War at the Vietnam Military History Museum, Hanoi

Photographer Lee Karen Stow recently visited Vietnam to meet some of the women who fought for their country in the conflict with the USA, having earlier met US veterans in Washington.

President Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader of North Vietnam at that time, made it clear that women were expected to mobilise and fight to unify their country.

Many enlisted into the Vietnamese People's Army and took up roles in frontline nursing and combat while those who joined the Viet Cong worked behind enemy lines in South Vietnam, on sabotage missions and underground in tunnels.

Stow's pictures capture both the military heroines and bereaved mothers created during the American war in Vietnam.

Nguyen Thi Nghi

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Born in 1918 and living in a district of Ho Chi Minh city in the south, Nguyen Thi Nghi was a resistance worker in the war against the occupying French who were defeated in 1954. Her duties were to supply food and provide shelter to those fighting for the country's freedom from French rule.

Later in the conflict against America she lost two sons. She is one of 50,000 women awarded the honorary title Heroic Mothers of Vietnam for their losses.

Do Thi Net

Image source, Lee Karen Stow

Another Heroic Mother of Vietnam, Do Thi Net sits with her daughters Nguyen Thi Ten and Nguyen Thi Sen in a district of Ho Chi Minh city.

Do Thi Net survived both the wars with the French and the US, although her husband and one of her sons died in 1968 during one of the worst years of the Vietnam War. Her other son was 16 and wanted to join the fight, but she refused to let him.

Ngo Thi Loan

Image source, Lee Karen Stow

Ngo Thi Loan was a primary school teacher when she volunteered in 1971 to serve in the Vietnam People's Army, eventually joining Brigade 559 as a nurse.

She said "Everyone was expected to join the army to fight the US. Sometimes too many solders got injured and that affected my mind."

However, she feels lucky because her son was not affected by the US's use of chemical defoliants, as many of her friends had children with birth defects from Agent Orange.

Nguyen Thi Van

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Nguyen Thi Van, seen here with husband Pham, was encouraged by her father to join up and served in Brigade 559 in 1971, working on the Ho Chi Minh trail which was used by the North to move supplies to its units in the south of the country.

Her duties were to maintain the communication line and undertake telephone repairs.

"We were not afraid as we were too busy," she said. "We were not afraid of anything, even death. On duty alone at midnight in the jungle we were not afraid."

Nguyen Thi Tien

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Nguyen Thi Tien is seen here with her husband Ong The Thin, also a veteran. She was still in secondary school when she joined the 592 Pipelaying Regiment, spurred to do so by the bombing of her village.

"They hit the farmers and the villagers died," she said. "I saw the bombs drop. It made me so angry."

She was responsible for moving fuel through pipelines amongst the inhospitable jungle of the Truong Son Mountains.

"We always had some threat: enemy, disease, dangerous animals. Our hair fell out from malaria and we did not have enough to eat. But the strength of the mind became a physical strength. We would never give up."

Ha Thi Mac

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Ha Thi Mac, now in her 60s, and also a veteran soldier of Brigade 559 worked in the jungle supplying troops.

"We grew cassava to eat the leaf as we had a lack of green vegetables and vitamins and sometimes felt very weak. Many died of malaria from going out to collect the rice and I think we were exposed to Agent Orange as we lived in the contaminated areas."

After the war, she returned to her studies and now works in the international relations department of the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange/Dioxin (VAVA) in Hanoi.

''I saw many friends die and I know I am lucky to be alive. I came back from the war to my studies. But my friends had problems because of Agent Orange.

"So many children are living in a vegetative state, they lie in bed all day and have many diseases. We don't want war to happen again. That's why we must tell everyone in the world to join together and protest war, any war, especially chemical war.''

Image source, Lee Karen Stow
Image caption,
Military hat and uniform belonging to Nguyen Thi Dinh, the female Deputy Commander of the South Vietnam Liberation Armed Forces (Viet Cong) on display at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum in Hanoi. Today, Vietnam has two museums dedicated solely to women.

All photographs © Lee Karen Stow